It is easier now that I look like a guy

This is a guest post by Fortister, who prefers to remain otherwise anonymous.

This was inspired by a question on Twitter by Dr. Kortney Ziegler: “so much energy focused on women in tech — rightfully so — but for trans men or other non binary gender identities…crickets…”

It is easier now that I look like a guy.

I think of myself as a shapeshifter, and with that comes shifting perspective. I am non-binary identified. I’ve kept my expressive voice and use female pronouns out of political stubbornness, because in this place, at this time, being a woman is exceptional, and I didn’t want to disappear. I spend enough time as the second woman in the room that it would feel like leaving my community to leave that role. Even as a woman, though, it is still easier now that I look like a guy. Masculine privilege is a powerful thing.

In meetings I state my opinion with no apologies or waffling and no one is taken aback. I get invited to dinners with coworkers and we talk about work instead of their wives. I don’t get hit on at industry events, and I go to hotel room parties at conferences with only lingering fear from another life. No one expresses surprise at my technical competence, and no one has yelled at me once since I shifted.

There was a time my long hair and I were assumed to be someone’s wife or girlfriend or HR rep. Now HR reps walk up to me. I know when it is time for a haircut because people start questioning my tone or dismissing my opinions. There was a time when I wondered how much makeup to wear, and which shirts were too thin. Now my clothes come from Amazon and I dress just like everyone I work with and I wake up fifteen minutes before rolling out the door.

It’s easier now.

The usual downsides of my identity don’t even seem to apply. No one questions my pronouns; after all at times I am the only example of a “woman” in the room. Neither do I feel misgendered as simply “woman”; just being a programmer queers my gender. It is convenient for the men around me to appropriate my presence and ignore the distinction. My boss doesn’t even blink when I get “Sir’ed” at a business dinner.

The women’s bathroom is nearly empty and the women there are unsurprised by my presence. We usually know each others names and at least half them are as grateful for the lack of gender police as I am. I still glance down with a self-deprecating smile, because I don’t want to make anyone any more uncomfortable than we already are.

Just because it is easier doesn’t mean it is easy. So much of my effort has gone to things that have nothing to do with tech. I choose my company for culture and the possibility of being promoted as a woman, even one who looks like a man, instead of for the technical problems that I would like to solve. I don’t move around as much because I would have to establish myself all over again. I’ve wasted countless hours to men who find it easier to ask questions of me than my colleagues, though I value the opportunities to mentor as well. At meetings I’m distracted from the topic at hand when the only other woman is ignored. “What was that?” I ask, interrupting the interrupter, but in the same moment I’ve lost the technical thread in a rush of adrenaline. At technical conferences men ask me what I think about women in tech, or guiltily admit their discomfort with our culture, instead of inquiring about my work. I’ve given up on Hacker News after yet another vicious round of misogyny and had abandoned Slashdot years before, and so my coworkers talk about things I have no energy to seek out for myself. I limit my conferences to ones where I will not be an oddity. (In the rest of the world my masculinity makes me an oddity. Here it is the vestiges of womanhood.)

Instead of spending my weekend hacking open source I spend my weekend figuring out how to defend the notion of my humanity. How to explain, just a little more clearly, why the oblivion of the men around me is harmful and destructive. How to make it about them, so that maybe finally they will care. I’m glad I’m not job hunting; instead of a github I have a portfolio of blog posts I’m too afraid to share (they are all insufficient for the impossible task of changing my world.) When people talk about wanting to only hire the most passionate, the most committed programmers I want to tell them that if I weren’t I would have never made it this far. Merely being a mid-career woman programming is a demonstration of passion the privileged men around me will never have an opportunity to display.

I can smell their fear, the possibility that their mediocrity is merely covered by privilege. When they protest that women aren’t interested, it is with the fear that their house of masculine cards might come toppling down. There is nothing manly about typing, about understanding systems, about communicating with humans and machines to create useful tools. Our work is not white-collar networking and control. It is not blue-collar physical strength. It is not pink-collar emotional labor. It is something new, beyond the gender binary. A huge amount of political work has gone into turning this profession masculine, but that distinction is precarious and some of us seek to actively undermine it. There is nothing masculine about what we do, and so the masculine performances that accompany it are beyond ridiculous. To need pictures of naked women to prove that we are all Straight Men here, we must know it isn’t true. Some of us are so anxious that if we can not use “he” in our job postings and documentation we might, what, forget that we are men?

I have no sympathy; some of us didn’t have this option. If you rely on your profession to validate your gender identity, you are setting yourself up for disappointment as well as acting like an exclusionary jerk.

The capitalists exploit men’s fear of being unmanly, offering them paltry rewards relative to the value they produce in exchange for brutal hours, insulting treatment and the inevitable eventual betrayal of their values. “Do no evil” becomes “evil is hard to define”, and if men admit they care they are considered soft. Organizing for working conditions or caring about missing your children’s childhoods would be womanly, not ruggedly individualistic. When there is any pushback, it is cloaked in the most masculine language possible, of “life hacking”, of seeking time to lift heavy objects or get trashed to cover for the lack of meaningful interpersonal relationships in our work-dominated lives. The only alternative to the capitalist-driven workplace is the even-more masculine world of VC and the near-certainty of failure, with egos protected by the knowledge that they are at least not women. They are doing something women cannot do, they assume, rather than doing something no one with any self respect would be willing to do, woman or man.

It is easier because I merely look like a guy. I do not need to protest my manliness, because I know in my womanly education and upbringing I was taught skills that are valuable here. “He” is not as valuable a programmer as “they” are, since “he” is artificially limited. The competence of women is no threat to my self-image; it is patently obvious to me that women can code because I have met good programmers who are women in the spaces where we congregate, reassuring each other of our existence when the people around us deny it. I do not need to believe that I am special, that my profession is exclusionary, in order to feel whole, nor am I willing to write off the millions of potential programmers who have never had the set of happy accidents that led me to the profession. I seek to prove neither my relevance nor masculinity, since I am confident of both. That confidence comes from having to fight for them; it is impossible to know what we are capable of if we never reach our limits.

Men still tell me openly that they think women are better at “that people stuff” than “technical things”, as though their opinion outweighs my experience and citations and as though technical problems were not caused by people. They say that boys are better at math, as though they don’t turn to StackOverflow any time they need an equation. A few brave and very ignorant men suggest that it’s my masculinity that enables me to code. I tell them the best software development class I took was Introduction to Writing Poetry and I am the only one in it who became a programmer. I tell them a story where our insistence on masculinity is bankrupting our profession. I say that there are millions of women who have been driven from the field by the ignorance and sexist behavior of people like them. Each time, I blush in fear at my audacity, but my masculinity protects me. Before the shift, they laughed at my protestations of belonging or mocked my supposed naivete. Now in person the worst they do is walk away or change the subject uncomfortably.

Online, of course, is a different story. I am either assumed male or dismissed, belittled and told to make sandwiches if I make a point to be read female (I use sex here purposefully, for lack of better terminology: online I’ve found read sex more important than identity, voice, tone or gendered behavior. That reading of sex, of course, is fraught.) The area for us shifters is erased; there is no true self for me to show because there is no space in people’s expectations for me. I am presumed to not exist.

Online it’s easy to be a man. It is also deeply uncomfortable; it feels like a lie to erase my other life. However, going out of my way to be read a woman is to cut away a part of myself as well. This is perhaps part of why I keep to the shadows, the private forums, the feminist hideaways. Among the geeky feminists, I have found a story that allows my existence. Things can be more complicated.

Editor’s note: We welcome and encourage guest post submissions from trans women, and from non-binary-identified, genderqueer, gender-fluid, and/or agender people who were coercively assigned male at birth, about their experiences in geeky communities, professions, or subcultures — as well as any other geek feminist or social-justice-related topic. We would love to feature more guest posts about the experience of being gender-non-conforming in tech, from people with a variety of lived experiences.

18 thoughts on “It is easier now that I look like a guy

  1. CEB

    Thank you for writing this. I too am in the place between/around the traditional genders. I have been pretty consistent in presentation since professionally entering the tech world, so I have no sense of how my appearance affects how I am treated, I assume I am at least read as queer, yet sometimes this seems not to be the case. I see no one else like me at work, absolutely no one. I means a lot to read this account.

    1. Anonymenter

      Seconded. This is seriously the best article about women in tech that I have ever read, and the one that comes the closest to matching my experience. I kept thinking “Wow, did I write this and then forget I had done so?”

      1. quartzpebble

        This rang very true in tone to my experiences as a PhD student in chemistry, though science is definitely gendered differently from tech and I am, if anything, a genderqueer woman.

        But I am pretty sure that my masculine presentation was a good part of the reason I got so much support in entering the department from a professor who (I later learned) had treated the women in his group incredibly poorly. I dressed in men’s pants and buttondowns. My hair was shorter than most of the men’s. I asked questions in seminars. I answered questions at group meeting. I acted assertively with my adviser, and I think in some ways he respected me for that. I think it would have been a different story if I regularly came to work/school in makeup and wore my hair long and curly.

        Interestingly, when I worked as a chemist in big pharma I was told I was intimidating/offputting and no one ever, ever commented when I got a haircut. Very different culture.

        1. old biddy

          I too am a chemist. I’m a heterosexual woman and present as such, but I lack some of the stereotypical socialization, so I come off as sort of dorky/awkward and brusque (by female standards) but am not particularly so when compared to my male colleagues. I was very assertive in grad school, and that was amplified since I was in a competitive group. My advisor was very much like yours and we got along very well, despite the fact that he had a reputation for being sexist.
          When I got into industry, however, it was a huge culture shock and I suffered many career setbacks for not conforming to gender expectations. I was in a particularly toxic group. Women who acted more feminine didn’t have as many battles but they did not have an easy time of it either.

  2. Daniel

    I admit bias/blindness here, but it seems to me that too much of your identity is packed into gender.

    As a result, swings in how you’re perceived gender-wise is of massive importance to you.

    I’m not saying this is bad in itself, but if you want to have a better chance of happiness I suggest you de-copule your gender and your identity as much as possible.

    Focus on what code you shipped. Focus on the blog posts you wrote (that don’t have to do with gender). Focus on sharing interesting information with others.

    I suspect that the less you focus on gender, and just sort of let it be what it is, the happier you’ll be. It sounds like you have so much to offer, and the fact that you’re boy/girl/man/woman just shouldn’t matter much for that.

    Be yourself without gender to whatever degree you can. Or, even better, just ignore whatever gender you’re being. Treat it like furniture. Talk instead about who’s sitting in it.

    1. Fortister

      I am unapologetic about being a gender nerd; this stuff is really interesting and widely prevalent. Did you know most infants start sorting by gender at between four and six months? Anyway, I can reassure you that I’m perfectly happy, and personally I am happier than when I tried to ignore gender.

      I know who I am, express that and let other people read it as they will, but I certainly don’t pass judgment on people who are invested in gender. Many cis folks are deeply identified with their genders and get offended when mis-gendered, so if anything I suspect I’m less invested than average. Regardless of how strongly we identify, living in a gender-free society unfortunately isn’t an option, especially when working in heavily-gendered professions.

      If I were the only one who experienced these shifts I might be open to your argument, but differences in treatment based on read gender are easily measurable even when people are interacting with otherwise-identical robots:

      I will say that I don’t think tying one’s identity to code shipped is any better than tying it to gender. We’ve all had days when we wrestled with code and the code won; I would hate to walk away from that feeling like I was a failure as a person.

      1. Daniel

        Fair enough.

        And I certainly wasn’t trying to diminish the issues that are in play for you; I was instead suggesting that you focus more on the other aspects of your identity.

        But it seems you already get this, and the moderator’s point below is a valid one, i.e. that this is THE EXACT PLACE to dive deeply into these issues, so showing up and saying, “Maybe you should think less about this” can be seen as unhelpful at best, annoying on average, and offensive at worst.

        So my apologies if I hit either of the latter two.

        I really enjoyed the piece, and I wish you the best. You have a friend in SF if you ever want to chat.

    2. Leigh Honeywell

      Hey Daniel,

      I was going to delete your comment, but Fortister beat me to replying to it so I’ll let it stand. Generally speaking, comments to the effect of “you should care less about $issue” are not welcome in this space as they add nothing to the conversation, so please consider that before replying further.


      -Leigh (wearing moderator hat)

      1. Fortister

        You can still feel free to delete the exchange if you like; I replied before it got deleted the first time. Otherwise, please don’t approve this comment.

    3. A Viescas

      I know you kind of apologized, but I still want to emphasize:

      Ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away. It won’t make sexist people vanish or prevent people from saying “Girls can’t code” or preventing them from saying they want to rape you. These things, in general, mean more to “happiness” than any amount of code written or how difficult it is to manage gender expression.

      Managing gender expression is, realistically, the only way to *actually* manage these kinds of things. It lets you avoid people who conflate femininity as weakness and recognize moments when you are being treated badly due to sexism.

      If all you do is “focus on code and writing” then you will lose, because you will keep running into sexist responses to your work and then assume that they’re because your code wasn’t good enough.

      And another girl leaves tech, “proving” sexist people right that girls “can’t hack it.”

  3. Linda Cottrell

    I am another woman working in a technical field; I have a Masters degree in engineering.

    I will say that I am not someone who is particularly concerned with gender. But when a woman constantly has it thrown into her face that she is a woman, and somehow unusual for that, it becomes impossible not to be conscious of gender.

    In many countries, including the US, women working in fields that are dominated by men, have to live with a constant bombardment of messages that vary from overtly sexist to the much more subtle and insidious idea that a woman can be competent despite her gender.

    I adopted a similar tactic when I was working on my bachelor’s degree. I wore oversize tie-dyed t-shirts and ragged jeans all the time. I wore my hair long, but to identify as a hippy, rather than as a woman. While that let me in for other biases, the counterculture identification mostly made my gender a non-issue.

    I am now working in Scandinavia, and it is with profound relief that I can report that women are truly treated equally here. Not only are women represented in technical fields in much greater numbers, but the only sexist statement I’ve heard anyone make in the work place prompted shocked silence, rather than the laughter I would have expected in the US or most other parts of Europe. It was like saying something pro Nazi in front of a bunch of war veterans.

    It still amazes me. Every single day. I am an expert and treated as one, instead of having to bully my way into acceptance, and risk being labelled an aggressive bitch for it, or adopting other survival tactics just to enjoy my job.

    1. Tim Chevalier

      It’s great that you’ve had positive experiences in Scandinavia. Be careful with the broad-based statements, though — it’s my understanding that the experiences of immigrant women from outside Western Europe or the US, women of color, and trans women in Scandinavia (certainly not an exhaustive list) are not as good as the experiences of white Western cis women there. I would rather let the experiences of people in those groups speak for themselves than elaborate.

      1. Linda Cottrell

        That may well be… I wouldn’t presume to suppose that everyone has the same experience here. I have heard, and read reports of discrimination against ethnic minorities (and even non-Scandinavians) in Scandinavia. But I personally haven’t experienced any. No society is perfect, but equality seems to be quite strongly supported in both law and culture. Discrimination of any sort is illegal in Norway, and the Norwegian law is quite comprehensive.

  4. Skylar Fox

    I continually try to seek out the experiences of women and NB people in STEM fields and this is a really important perspective that I haven’t really heard talked about much so I really appreciate it. I’m glad that you found a space where your voice could be heard, Fortister!

    PS: As a genderqueer person and fellow identity/gender nerd I appreciated the bit at the end about the rabbit hole of complexity that is, well, everything :P

  5. Trix

    Thank you for encapsulating exactly what it is about my own peculiar kind of privilege when it comes to IT. I’m a butch woman and queer – not sure what that qualifies me as on the GQ spectrum these days – but this is so true of my experience:

    In meetings I state my opinion with no apologies or waffling and no one is taken aback. I get invited to dinners with coworkers and we talk about work instead of their wives. I don’t get hit on at industry events, and I go to hotel room parties at conferences with only lingering fear from another life. No one expresses surprise at my technical competence, and no one has yelled at me once since I shifted.

    And yes, I assert my femaleness as well – I don’t gender-stereotype anyone in the office, I smack down the attempts at sexist humour (I got told once that I should like that joke because it was “against men”), everyone knows I have strong feminist views, and so on. I’m sure some of the people in the office (particularly certain women, I’m sad to say) read me as very masculine, but for the guys in my team, I am actually not one of the boys.

    I can only hope for the day when gender unconventionality at all points of the spectrum – particularly the male end – becomes another one of those quirks about someone in the office that isn’t worthy of note in the professional sense. Such as the ones who have to have the gourmet coffee and won’t go to the crap cafe, the rugbyheads, the one with 6 kids etc.

    More personally, I hope that one day that your solidarity with women in the professional sense can be done with all of your aspects revealed, and without the need to omit some of them in some contexts to make the message sink in harder.

  6. Gray

    Thank you for writing about your experiences with this. One idea you talked about has come up a lot for me as well working in a technical field. The idea that technical things are somehow gendered. Particularly programming but also science, tech and other mathematically rigorous or difficult fields are considered inherently male or manly. Too many regard being a good programmer or good X as somehow reaffirming their masculinity. Being technically competent becomes a sign of masculinity just like being athletic and brutal hours at work or in the lab become a right of passage.

    If there is anything male here it is the peculiar belief that your masculinity is determined by your work and your ability. If you look the theme is constant in tech. Certain programming languages that are considered not as difficult are described as gay, pansy, or otherwise unmanly and it starts even earlier than that. Technical skill is too often the way young boys who don’t fit in other socially acceptable male roles choose to assert their masculinity. Programming skill isn’t just a guy thing for them, its the basis of their own masculine identity and competition. Being more technically competent becomes being more masculine and there are many who are only too happy to reinforce that and take advantage of their long hours. A female programmer would not necessarily threaten that identity, most of us men are willing to recognize that women may have manly virtues and men may have feminine ones. What does threaten it is an un-masculine programmer. Someone just as technically competent who is not and does not strive to be manly. That makes their own implicit claim that they are manly because they are technical look like just what it is. Absurd.

    I’m sad to hear you still get comments from men telling you it must be your masculinity that makes you a good programmer. I can only imagine how that kind of shit makes you feel. I think its a peculiarly male kind of bullshit and I think it needs to end.

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